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Garden in the City: What Would Pa Ingalls Do?

By Patty Wetli | May 28, 2013 9:35am | Updated on May 28, 2013 9:39am
 Gardening in the city
Hortus in Urbe
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LINCOLN SQUARE — This week's column was supposed to be an entertaining yet educational look at what we decided to plant in our community garden allotment this year.

No to cilantro, that herbal crime against humanity; yes to brussels sprouts because seriously, haven't you always wondered how the heck those puppies grow?

Mother Nature had other ideas.

On Wednesday, a frost warning came across Peterson Garden Project's Twitter feed and Facebook page. Overnight temps were expected to dip near 40 degrees, spelling danger for my just-planted tomato seedlings.

According to the website Tomato Dirt, "tomatoes cannot withstand frost" and I was directed toward several manners of protection: tunnel row covers, floating row covers or individual plant covers.

"Or we could just buy new plants," said my husband Dave when I told him we needed to grab a sheet and head over to the garden.

True. At that point, our tomato plants had been in the ground for all of four days. Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I hadn't gotten all that attached to them just yet.

On the other hand, I confess I still suffered from occasional pangs of guilt knowing that there were plenty of days last year when I'd half-assed my obligations to my crops.

I recalled asking a master gardener about my zucchini plants, which had developed a whitish film on their leaves. She explained that I needed to treat this particular condition with a solution of milk and water, sprayed daily on the upper and undersides of the leaves.

As I nodded and pretended to commit her instructions to memory, I remember thinking, "Yeah, that's not gonna happen." This hobby was becoming too much like work.

I thought about that a lot last year as I watched pests, disease and drought kill or otherwise stress my plantings.

"What would Pa Ingalls do?" I often wondered as I schlepped bucket after bucket of water to my plot, pouring off sweat in the searing heat.

I may have grown up on the outskirts of Ohio's corn and soybean fields, but the "Little House on the Prairie" patriarch was as close as I came to ever knowing a bona fide farmer. And man, did he have it rough, battling plagues of locusts, hailstorms and Mrs. Oleson just to keep Laura, Mary, Carrie and Grace fed and in hair ribbons.

Extrapolating from the frustration I felt attempting to tend 32 non-productive square feet of garden, well I still can't begin to fathom what it's like to be a farmer at the daily whim of forces not remotely in your control.

If my garden fails, I'm not going hungry, it's not costing me my livelihood. I don't necessarily feel guilty about that fact, but I did gain even greater respect for the people who grow our food, knowing that the deck is stacked against them.

After losing my squash last year to the vine borer moth, I didn't include the plant in my garden this summer. One less point of failure I figured.

Then came the frost warning, a new curveball from Mother Nature whose message seems to be "If you can't stand the frost or heat or whatever else I decide to throw at you, get out of the garden."

So we covered the tomato plants.

We toted an old fitted sheet over to our plot, avoiding eye contact with our fellow gardeners who weren't doing anything to save their tomatoes. We draped it over our tomato cages and secured the edges with scavenged rocks, then slunk back home, hoping no one had noticed us tucking our tomatoes into bed for the night.

Because, in case I didn't mention this, no one else was covering their plants.

Either we're the biggest suckers on the planet or we're going to be the only people with tomatoes come July. The point is, I made the effort and removed a single element of chance from the crazily capricious growing equation.

But I draw the line at locusts.

Next week's column: All about the "s" word — seeds.